Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Trade: Lions acquire Enokida from Tigers for Okamoto

The Saitama Seibu Lions made their first trade since 2013. They acquired P Daiki Enokida from the Hanshin Tigers in exchange for P Yosuke Okamoto on Wednesday.

Enokida, 31, fell out of favor with the Tigers and only appeared in three ichi-gun games and 6.2 innings in 2017. In 2016, he had 35 appearances out of the bullpen, which were mostly in medium or low leverage where he recorded a 4.31 ERA in 39.2 innings.

His career was originally promising as a reliever from 2011-2012 at the start of his time in NPB. For two seasons, he had a combined 2.30 ERA in 105.2 innings of work. He even appeared in the 2011 All-Star game.

The Tigers put him in the rotation for 2013 and Enokida became inconsistent. He was drafted in the first round by the Tigers in the 2010 NPB Draft, where he became a fallback option after the team lost out on the rights to Tatsuya Oishi.

Okamoto, 32, was the Lions 6th starter in the middle of the 2017 season, where he registered a 6-3 record and a 5.34 ERA. Originally a 6th round pick in 2009, Okamoto has been a back end starter for the Lions as well as someone who can eat innings out of the bullpen.

The Lions have been looking for left-handed depth and made it a priority in the first round of the 2017 draft by taking Hiromasa Saito as a fall back choice. Shota Takekuma is likely going to the rotation after doing well so far in the preseason.

With Takekuma out of the bullpen, the Lions have Shogo Noda, Saito, Hirotaka Koishi and Tomomi Takahashi as reliever options. Takahashi has struggled in the preseason and it's possible that obtaining Enokida is a vote of no confidence in who remains.

According to "T-Ray" of The Hanshin Tigers, Hanshin is looking for back end rotation help and Okamoto fits the need for depth. With Okamoto capable of being anywhere in the bullpen or rotation, he's versatile enough to be plugged in.

As I recently wrote about trades in NPB, they're usually minor and often have the feeling of it being a lateral or neutral gain for either side. This is exactly one of those cases where both teams traded a expendable pitchers hoping to gain depth for their bullpen (Lions) and rotation (Tigers). This is nothing more than a cheap depth pickup for these teams with both pitchers having minimal upside.

Time will tell what this trade is, but we thank Okamoto for his service with the Lions and being part of a decent run last season. 


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Friday, March 9, 2018

Seibu Lions 2018 season is championship or bust

The Saitama Seibu Lions are coming off a second place finish and first A-class since 2013. Hatsuhiko Tsuji helped turn things around with a more defensive approach to coaching, as well as the rise of Hotaka Yamakawa and Sosuke Genda being regulars.

With all the success seen in 2017, the expectations only get larger in 2018. This year's motto is "Catch The Flag", which was used as early as August of 2017 when the team had a 13-game winning streak.

In addition to Catch The Flag the bottom line in gold says "栄光をつかみ獲れ / Eiko o Tsukami tore" which would refer to "Grab the glory" in English.

The Lions have had seven pennant clinching parties happen in front of them in the last nine years, including the last three in a row. The best way to prevent this is by winning the pennant yourself.

"[We can] win a championship [in 2018]," Kona Takahashi said in an interview with the Melbourne Aces.

Takahashi is a raw pitcher who is viewed as the future ace of the team. Having early success with the Lions, he struggled in Australia with the Aces and hopes to right the ship in 2018. Even though he spent majority of 2017 injured, he knew what the team accomplished last year with the hopes to be the best in the nation for the this time around.

The biggest reason to contend for a championship is having an ace in Yusei Kikuchi, emerging from a breakout season in 2017. This will likely be his last year in Japan, meaning the window with him as the team's ace goes away when he's posted to MLB.

Seibu will not be doomed when he's gone, but Kikuchi is the only proven starter to carry the team while the others are just part of a supporting cast. Shinsaburo Tawata has the upside to be a No. 1, but not an ace. Takahashi and Tatsuya Imai on paper will be the aces of the future, but the latter suffered a setback for breaking the law.

With the current core of Hideto Asamura, Sosuke Genda, Shogo Akiyama, Kikuchi and a rising Hotaka Yamakawa, the time is now. Asamura and Akiyama are entering their prime years and it will be the last chance with Kikuchi leading the way.

They need to take advantage of any opportunity they're given. Whether the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks find vulnerability down the stretch or are hungover at the start.

Speaking the Hawks, the Lions have yet to show they can compete against them head to head, where it's been one-sided for a very long time. Last year, they had a 1-11 record in the Fukuoka Yafuoku! Dome with another loss coming from Kitakyushu. Whenever the Lions go down Fukuoka, their pitchers falter, Kikuchi included. Crazy enough, Kikuchi has never had a "win" over the Hawks in his career.

No time could be better for the Lions to make noise in a year where Kikuchi is expected to leave, but the bats and speed can do plenty of damage offensively. This is the year to do it.

While we personally don't have championship expectations, it's clear that the players, fans and organization does from top to bottom after having a strong 2017.

Catch The Flag! 栄光をつかみ獲れ!


Here is an exclusive interview with Kona Takahashi and Shunta Nakatsuka. Thanks against to Steven Smith, interpreter Kobayashi-san, the Melbourne Aces and the Seibu Lions themselves for making this possible.


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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

NPB Preview 2018: Pacific League

Since the turn of the 21st Century, the Pacific League has mostly owned NPB by winning the Japan Series. Of the 18 Japan Series in this millennium, the Central League has only won six times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2012).

After looking at the Central League in a previous post, we'll take a look at the Pacific League. Once again, no true predictions will be in this post, see this more as a projection.


Chiba Lotte Marines

The worst case scenario happened as the Marines had all the looks of a last place team from hitting and pitching. On paper they can't go backwards from being in 6th.

Strengths: Balanced depth, Rotation, future infield

The Marines have plenty of options when it comes to pitching thanks to drafting several pitchers in the last few drafts. It's enough to be adequate and steady. They also drafted their infield of the future with Taiga Hirasawa and Hisnori Yasuda being first round picks from 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Question marks: Lack of star power, rotation ace, power hitting

The Marines can have a lot of average or above average players, but there are only a few championship caliber guys on their roster when looking at it on paper. Hideaki Wakui is a shell of his former self, while Daichi Suzuki and Katsuya Kakunaka are complementary pieces.

Their biggest issue is finding a player who can hit 20 home runs, something that was lacking in 2017. Willy Mo Pena was their HR leader with 15 as he only played in the second half of the season and he isn't returning. They really miss Alfredo Despagine of the Softbank Hawks after he signed with them last offseason.

There is a lack of elite talent currently on the Marines, but there could be someone developed if a prospect rises to the occasion.

Notable additions and foreign signings: Tadahito Iguchi (as a manager), P Tanner Scheppers, IF Matt Dominguez, P Edgar Olmos, P Mike Bolsinger, OF Francisco Peguero, IF Tu-Hsuan Lee, P Kenji Otonari

Key losses: Manager Tsutomu Ito (Other lost foreign players weren't as notable)

Chiba took a bunch of flyers on players given they have nothing to lose. We're in a new era with Iguchi retiring as a player and being the team's manager. He already removed any player being a captain saying that everyone needs to step it up. By signing so many players, there is a better chance someone can emerge from the pack.

Expectations: The Marines were mostly a boring team through majority of the season until August, where they competed. They're going to need Shogo Nakamura to continue from his strong second half and pitchers like Tomohito Sakai must step it up.

Ayumu Ishikawa is their best pitcher on paper, but even he had a brutal 2017 after a questionable World Baseball Classic. There are plenty of rotation and bullpen options, just someone needs to stick. With a lack of star power, they can't be taken seriously for a pennant, but A-class is possible if Iguchi's leadership brings new life into the team and their pitching can carry their questionable offense, something it did from 2015-2016.


Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters

After winning it all in 2016, the Fighters took a major step back where injuries hurt, but the pitching and hitting took a natural regression for their fall. In 2016, everything went right, but 2017 had everything go wrong for a fifth place finish.

Strengths: Youth, speed, defense

Manager Hideki Kuriyama knows how to get the best out of his players and some kids are capable of stepping it up. Majority of their players are fast enough to beat out throws and the defense will likely improve with some of their starters from last year.

Question marks: Pitching, catcher

The rotation lacks an ace and even a front end starter. Their bullpen also has uncertainty as they lost their closer. Who takes the void? Plenty of farm players. The Fighters also rotated as many as five different guys at catcher as it was a revolving door in 2017.

Key additions and foreign signings: C Shinya Tsuruoka, OF Oswaldo Arcia, P Bryan Rodriguez, P Michael Tonkin, P Nick Martinez, IF Kotaro Kiyomiya

Key losses: P Shohei Ohtani, P Hirotoshi Masui, P Chris Martin

Coming off a bad season, the Fighters took more flyers on foreign imports compared to the past. Tsuruoka also returns after a stint with the Softbank Hawks. Obviously it's very easy to bring up Ohtani going to MLB and the Los Angeles Angels, but their closer situation remains uncertain too without Masui.

Kiyomiya will have all the hype in the world given his first round pick status and being on the radar out of high school. How much will he play? He will be viewed as the main attraction for the long run.

Expectations: There's too many question marks in their rotation and bullpen to take them seriously for A-class. Even if Ohtani was there, the supporting cast isn't adequate enough to stay above mediocrity. Kohei Arihara and Kenta Uehara were the recent first round picks who need to show they can be a front end starter. Arihara lacks the stamina while Uehara is unproven.

A rebound year from Sho Nakata would help to complement the power hitting Brandon Laird. The development of starting players like Kazunari Ishii and Go Matsumoto would also do the Fighters wonders. This usually stay relatively young as a whole as they don't keep their veterans, but someone needs to step it up in order to take them seriously in 2018.

In the big picture, the Fighters are looking to move out of Sapporo Dome as it isn't profitable. The Fighters even partnered themselves with the Texas Rangers to help understand the logistics of getting a new building.

They're looking to have their own stadium in the future and have their sights set on two possible locations. One potential site is in Kita-Hiroshima (north Hiroshima), which is right outside Sapporo itself. On paper, they're rebuilding, but also wanting to build a stadium for themselves.


Orix Buffaloes

The Orix Buffaloes are mired in mediocrity, but gave their fans a tease in the first two months playing decent baseball. Everything began to fall off once the summer rolled around and the team was all but eliminated in August. It was a step forward from coming in last place in 2016.

Strengths: Rotation, raw talent, power hitting

Orix has arguably the best rotation depth in the Pacific League behind the defending champions. Chihiro Kaneko, Yuki Nishi, Brandon Dickson are a solid top three while Takahiro Matsuba, Daiki Tomei provide depth options. Taisuke Yamaoka is coming off a solid rookie year and shakaijin first round pick Daiki Tajima will likely be slotted into the rotation too.

Yuta Kuroki was promising for a second round pick last year and was the setup man before he fell off. Masataka Yoshida has also shown he can hit well when he's playing. Stefen Romero and Chris Marrero also proved to be decent foreign signings as they added more pop to an already well-known Takahiro Okada.

Question marks: Front office, Manager Junichi Fukura, bullpen depth

Orix had a civil war involving executives Yasuyuki Kato and Ryuzo Setoyama which lasted until the end of the 2016 season. Kato left and Setoyama stayed around for 2017, but the latter has also left his position and neither guy is with the organization.

Since then, Hiroyuki Nagamura and Shigetoshi Hasegawa are the current leaders in charge of the baseball operations. While these are new faces, Fukura still holds his position as manager and they have not hired someone else. Fukura is a manager who should really be an assistant, but it has laid a problem of leadership and more by not having a new skipper in charge.

The players like Fukura, but will he develop and take them to the promise land? It's not likely. The front office has taken a guy like Nishi off the roster for 10 days after he has a bad game, not due to injury. They're often run in a manner where they think things can turn around overnight.

It's possible they may even rush back a player before he's 100% after an injury. This is what sums up this Buffaloes team with incompetence with several moves being eyebrow raisers.

Key additions and import signings: P Andrew Albers, P Hirotoshi Masui

Key losses: P Yoshihisa Hirano (to the Diamondbacks)

Orix hit on their signings last year by keeping Romero and Marrero around. Masui will replace Hirano at closer on paper and with Kuroki, it should be a decent back end to their bullpen.

Expectations: Orix has the talent to compete for A-class, but the front office and management can hold them back. They've only been a playoff team twice in the Orix Buffaloes era in 2008 and 2014. Could they get there? The rotation has what it takes as well as the team being talented, but incompetence from Fukura and others are a reason to have doubt.


Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

The Eagles had their first season of A-class since Masahiro Tanaka left the team and won it all in 2013. They even won a playoff series against the Saitama Seibu Lions in the first stage of the Climax Series. With the third year under Masataka Nashida, the team hopes to continue moving forward.

Strengths: Mix of veterans in rotation, power hitting

Takahiro Norimoto, Takayuki Kishi and Minabu Mima are a solid 1-2-3 for the rotation and all have experience in the postseason to carry them. Carlos Peguero, Japhet Amador and Zelous Wheeler can all hit at least 20 home runs with at least one of them reaching 30.

They also have the usual suspects on offense with Eigoro Mogi, who can be an MVP candidate if healthy and a solid starter in "Ginji" Akaminai.

Question marks: Speed, bullpen

Not a single Eagles player had more than seven stolen bases last year. They'll have to hit it in the gap to have an extra base hit or score a runner from first. Reserve pinch runner Kenji Tanaka and Wheeler tied for the lead with seven. It's possible there's depth on the bench, but for their starting nine players? We're not likely to see many steal attempt, which was good compared to the 2015 when previous manager "Dave" Okubo forced the issue.

The bullpen is hit or miss before Yuki Matsui locks up the 9th inning. Frank Herrmann was good enough to stay around and Yuhei Takanashi was a good piece, but it was a tale of two halves for hte bullpen where the first half was good and second half was not. In the playoffs, all middle relievers stepped it up for a few games, before the Hawks eliminated the team after the Eagles were up 2-1 in the series. Chia-Hao Sung proved to be a decent weapon late in the year.

Key additions and import signings: IF Naoto Watanabe, OF O'Koyea Dickson, P Hiroki Kondo, IF Masaki Iwami

Key losses: OF Kazuo Matsui

Matsui won't be missed on the field, but it's possible his leadership could be. The Eagles signed some minor depth with Watanabe and Dickson, but the starters are already set. It will be interesting if first round pick Kondo can make an early impact and Iwami has a shot to dethrone someone at first base in the long run.

Expectations: With the first half this team had, they're capable of contending for the pennant. The question is, can they put it together for a full season? They're going to need a solidified bridge before Yuki Matsui comes in the game, but the rotation and pieces are there despite a lack of speed.


Saitama Seibu Lions

The Lions have their first A-class season for the first time since 2013. They came off a 13-game winning streak and had new players emerge after having a disastrous 2016 season.

Strengths: Hitting, speed, power, defense

Everyone knows how the Lions are. They have players who can hit for average and get on base (Shogo Akiyama, Hideto Asamura), hit home runs (Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura, Hotaka Yamakawa, Ernesto Mejia) but now, they have a bonus with speed.

The emergence of Sosuke Genda and Shuta Tonosaki complement Yuji Kaneko as having three players with at least 25 stolen bags last year, which the team led NPB in this stat as a whole. Genda had plenty of errors on the stat sheet, but his defense has helped the Lions take away many base hits and help run prevention.

Question marks: Bullpen, rotation depth

The Lions pitchers after Yusei Kikuchi become a little murky. Ken Togame has a trend to do well in an odd-numbered year, but not so well in an even-numbered year. Shinsaburo Tawata has shown he's only good in the second half thus far, while Brian Wolfe isn't getting any younger.

For the bullpen, Tatsushi Masuda is the closer, but the Lions are looking for middle relief to be the bridge. Both units have plenty of options and choices, but they need to find out who can take the spot after being solid in both departments last season.

Key additions and import signings: P Hayato Takagi, P Neil Wagner, P Fabio Castillo, OF Kazuo Matsui, P Hiromasa Saito

Key losses: P Ryoma Nogami, P Kazuhisa Makita, P Brian Schlitter

The Lions lose Nogami to free agency as the Yomiuri Giants picked him up. However, they were able to claim Takagi as compensation and he could easily go in the rotation or bullpen if needed. On paper, the Lions want Castillo in the rotation while Wagner goes to the bullpen. "Kaz" Matsui is back with the Lions for the first time since 2003 and is more of a player/coach this time around. He'll mentor the young players while also playing in a handful of games.

With Makita and Schlitter gone from the bullpen, the Lions need someone else to take the 7th and 8th innings. Schlitter in particular had a poor finish to 2017 which led to being let go.

Expectations: The motto for the Lions is "Catch the Flag" in reference to the pennant, something this organization hasn't done since 2008. After going on a surprise run and finishing in second place, the Lions hope to take claim on a pennant in the Pacific League.

This is also likely to be Yusei Kikuchi's final season in Japan, where the team said they would post him if he had 10 wins in both 2017 and 2018. He's already halfway there and the Lions hope to develop an heir in the long run. The offense is elite, but can the run prevention from the pitching do well enough to out-perform their hitting?


Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

The Hawks established a new dynasty in NPB by winning their third Japan Series championship since 2014 and fifth since 2011. It was only a magical 2016 from the Fighters which prevented a possible four-peat.

Strengths: Pitching, well-rounded defense and hitting

The Hawks have options all over their organization for the rotation and bullpen. Every player has to earn his right for ichi-gun playing time, making it more impressive for any ikusei who worked their way up. Kodai Senga, Yuya Iida, Takuya Kai and Shunta Ishikawa were all former ikusei that were part of the 28-man roster. Shota Takeda is looking to rebound, Rick Van Den Hurk is a mainstay,  Nao Higashihama carried the load and Tsuyoshi Wada is injured.

Once again, this team can reload as Kai took over at catcher being one of the best defensive arms behind the plate in NPB. Yuki Yanagita could've been the league's MVP, but closer Dennis Sarfate won this award for setting a new saves record. Seiji Uebayashi emerged as the RF last year while Kenta Imamiya is one of the best defensive shortstops in NPB. Veterans Nobuhiro Matsuda and Seiichi Uchikawa are still important to the lineup while Alfredo Despaigne continues to bring more pop.

Question marks: Is this team hungover?

Winning can be easy to do when you're talented, but a championship hangover usually happens for any team in sports. It's a new season, but the Hawks are built to continue doing damage. Even when they lose, it's because they strand runners on base, not because they were flat.

New additions and import signings: IF Yurisbel Gracial

Key losses: None

The Hawks didn't have make changes after having another Japan Series title. Any recent draft picks will need to work their way up the hierarchy if they want to make themselves known. One of the biggest reasons for their success is being able to stack it with more players, increasing their chances of finding a diamond in the rough. If a guy works his way to the ichi-gun after being draft by Softbank, we often call their farm a factory.

Expectations: It's possible even more players come out of the factory like how Ishikawa, Uebayashi and Kai did last year. Anyone remember Seigi Tanaka being the most hyped up draft pick in his class? He has yet to play an ichi-gun game and won't unless he earns it.

The Hawks will continue to be the Hawks unless injuries decimate them. They have enough pitchers in their organization to give at least one to each team and still be good. Only a mental hangover can hurt them as they're the favorites once again to win the Pacific League pennant.



One team is openly rebuilding while the rest of the field is capable of being in A-class. Two teams emerged into A-class for 2017 after having been in B-class for 2016, meaning the Pacific League is wide open behind the consensus favorite Softbank Hawks.

Anything can happen and any teams behind the Hawks hope that is the case.

Central League Preview


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Monday, March 5, 2018

Ichiro signing with Seattle will sell tickets, but won't help solve futility

Ichiro Suzuki is returning to the Seattle Mariners, the team where his MLB career began since 2001. There is no doubt that this signing sounds great on paper given all his history to the game of baseball. Ichiro is 44 years old and he has a desire to play until he's 50.

Recently, the Mariners outfield took a hit with injuries as Ben Gamel will be out 4-6 weeks and Guillermo Heredia recovering from a shoulder problem. With how slow the MLB free agency has been with several still unsigned as spring training is ongoing, Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto likely wants some cheap depth with Ichiro.

While Ichiro returning to Seattle for the first time since 2012 seems fine and dandy, it will not help them win games in 2018.

It's easy to say that an aging veteran will help the team with leadership and passing on what he knows to another generation, but Ichiro is not like that. He wants to play and continue being on the field until he physically can't.

Take the tweets from Mariners beat writer @RyanDivish:

From a media standpoint, enjoy the crowd of Japanese reporters taking over the press box once again. That shall be a zoo with the large quantity cramming many spaces.

With Ichiro, it's all about business and he wants to do what is best for him in order to continue his career. While he won't demand starts, deep down he'd love to continue padding his hit total beyond the 3,000+ he already has in MLB. It always shows when he'd not swing at a ball four in order to get a hit.

On the field, Ichiro is at the twilight of his career where he is a fourth outfielder at best. He had a solid 2016 season, but fell off slightly in 2017.

Could he be a depth option for the Mariners? Sure. However, he's also taking playing time away from a player that has a better long term future like Gamel, Mitch Hainger and Heredia. They recently traded for Dee Gordon, picking him up from the Miami Marlins, which was fittingly Ichiro's last team. While none of them have upside like a prospect, it's more likely they'll be Mariners in 2020, where Ichiro is only getting a one year deal.

Taking away playing time from someone else wouldn't be healthy for a team that has dealt with plenty of mediocrity, and nothing positive to cheer about besides individual accomplishments since 2002.

Ichiro fans can cling to his accomplishments and what he's done in the past (such as his combined NPB and MLB hits being more than Pete Rose), but Mariners fans should suffer the same way by mentioning thy have the longest baseball playoff drought when combining all 42 teams from MLB and NPB, with their last being in 2001 and Ichiro's first year in North America. The Yokohama DeNA Baystars were initially stuck on 1998 as their last postseason year, but broke their drought in 2016 and made the Japan Series in 2017.

For all the things Felix Hernandez has accomplished in his career (including a perfect game), he has yet to play a meaningful postseason game. The Mariners have had six winning seasons since their last playoff appearance and came down to the last game in 2014 for a spot, but have come up short each time. It's been nothing but a tease in those years, where they've followed it up with a losing record minus the 2002-2003 seasons.

Can Ichiro be the one to save this and prevent the drought from continuing? No. Seattle is in the pit of mediocrity and has been forced to overpay for players (Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano) so they can have offense.

Sure, magic beans can come about and the Mariners could have everything go right for a 116 season again like 2001, but the current roster has mediocrity all over it. Pitching could be decent, but there are more questions than answers with their hitting.

The only winning Seattle is guaranteed with Ichiro is selling more tickets and merchandise using his brand, because he's Ichiro. If that's a path which satisfies them and makes fans happy with nostalgia, then so be it. However, tell any Mariners fans the last time they've made the postseason in the era of social media.

Ichiro is a Hall of Famer on both continents and a legend to the game of baseball, but his past accomplishments will not help this 2018 Mariners team. As much as he's well-respected and loved around the world, this is still 2018, not 2001.


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Saturday, March 3, 2018

NPB 101: Differences between baseball in Japan and MLB Part II

Thanks to the Shohei Ohtani effect, this blog was featured and seen through a writeup about his value. Crazy enough, that piece was written only one year into watching NPB for a full season. (We picked a team after the 2014 season and began following everything from that winter. Our first NPB game we've seen was Opening Day of 2015). 

There were plenty of obvious changes that the regulars would already notice, but I figured I should challenge myself to finding even more differences between both leagues. Whether it's rules, marketing, strategy or other details, there are plenty to spot that have nothing to do with language. 

Here are some more differences between NPB and MLB after watching the former for three years: 


NPB has a 28-man roster, MLB has a 25 and 40-man roster.

If anyone is familiar with the NHL, NPB has a similar thing with healthy scratches. In total, there are 28 players on the top roster and three of them are scratched before the game, making only 25 of them eligible for the match. NPB teams get more flexibility with more position players and relievers, meaning it's easier to presumably scratch three starters.  

NPB also has no equivalent of a 40-man roster, where they instead of a 70-man roster totaling everyone under contract within the organization. 


(Update): NPB has matched MLB with the catcher obstruction rule at the plate as well as reviewing/challenging plays with replays.

Home runs used to be the only thing reviewed prior to 2016, but NPB has been a copycat league when it comes to a few things. Only difference is that the challenge by a manager is called a "request" in Japanese. Umpires will still go on a microphone and explain the ruling with words like an NFL referee instead of a hand signal like their MLB counterparts. 


Fans can bring their own food, drinks and even alcohol into some stadiums
Photo credit: @KFippin
Fans have the ability to bring their own food and even beer to the stadium depending on the team. If you do bring your own drink, it must be poured into a stadium cup. Re-entry can also happen in Japan. 

When it comes to MLB, re-entry is not permitted and food/drink policies have various discretion depending on the stadium. Some places don't even allow bottled water. There's also the experience of Beer Girls, where someone will pour you a cup at your seat. In the States, you'd likely get coffee this way from a random person. 


Interleague play only happens for three weeks, similar to how MLB used to do it with an even number of teams in both leagues

The interleague schedule takes plays either at the end of May or beginning of June and runs for three weeks, with each team seeing the other six teams from the opposite league for a three-game series for a total of 18 games. This was similar to how MLB had interleague play before the Houston Astros moved to the American League in 2013. 

An interesting note on this is that the head-to-head record in this time between both leagues affects the draft positioning for October. The winning league will have its worst team draft first in the second round, followed by the worst team of the losing league, winning league's 5th place team etc. Similar to a waiver priority, the winning league earns the first selection, but not #1 overall draft pick. 


Rained out makeup games mostly (but not always) happen in September or October towards the end of the season, MLB teams could play a day-night double header

Japan culturally functions on a different schedule. A double header is already out of teh question as one hasn't happened since the 1990s. Fans who had tickets for a called game will get their money back and it is re-scheduled into September or October instead. 

September has several gaps in it on purpose for makeup games to be possible and sometimes having more to complete in October takes away the thrill in a potential race for first place. The only exception is during the 18-game interleague play session, where the following week purposely has a blank slate for potential makeup games in that time. That week is only used for postponed interleague games. 

If a game goes past five innings and then it becomes too wet outside, it is called and the scoreboard determines the winner or a tie. (Though they might be forced to play if it's a playoff game)


NPB has a similar group of players like an NFL practice squad

This unit is known as the "ikusei" or group of developmental players, who make slightly less than someone on the 70-man roster. An ikusei draft takes place after the main draft where teams can select as many players as they want. These ikusei are eligible to play in farm games, but must wear a triple digit jersey number to distinct that they're a developmental player. 

Unlike the NFL, where the practice squad players are free agents and can be signed to a 53-man roster, NPB teams cannot do this unless a trade happens. However, like the practice squad, these players are trying to earn their way to a 70-man roster spot and raise. 


NPB has only one main farm team, MLB has a long hierarchy

From the 70-man roster, NPB only has their ichi-gun (first team) and ni-gun (second team). MLB has AAA, AA, three levels of Single-A and a rookie league. If you're a farm player, you must compete with several others for playing time being crammed in ni-gun. 

A few NPB teams circumvent having a 70-man roster by drafting several ikusei players and creating a san-gun (third team) with an extra coaching staff to develop them. It costs quite a bit of money and time to organize this, but there is no rule breaking to have a larger quantity of players if they're willing to pay for it. 


NPB players taken off the 28-man roster must be away for at least 10 days, MLB must designate for assignment or use an option or place on the disabled list for their 25-man roster

There is no "DFA" in NPB unless they outright release a player and put him on waivers. They can take a guy off the roster for any reason from performance, making room for someone else or injury without a disabled list needed. Another interesting reason is to cut a starting pitcher's service time by a few days as there is an extended break ahead where they're not needed. The only requirement is that the player must be off the ichi-gun for 10 days at minimum. 

This also means you don't need to worry about being out of options or scrambling with players like how the Los Angeles Dodgers did in 2017. It's like the 10-day DL, but more simplified. 


Ichi-gun players do not need to be taken off the roster in order to play in a ni-gun game

If a team wants to get a bench player some work, they can participate in a farm game at anytime without a transaction needed. It's not unheard of for a player to partake in a ni-gun game for the day and an ichi-gun game at night if the former isn't far away. A few teams have their farm stadium very close to the ichi-gun stadium.  


Some farm games are free

Yes, you read that right. Some farm stadiums are often the size of a sandlot as they're usually in the day time. Anyone can watch and attend at no cost where usually hundreds will show up. Sometimes the farm team will occupy the ichi-gun's stadium on occasion if there's no main game there. 

In MLB, most farm teams are far from their MLB counterparts, meaning only baseball fans who live in other areas or even different states can see their players and prospects in person unless they travel.


NPB minimizes overshifting, MLB uses it

Spray charts are available in NPB, but teams don't implement it on the field as crazy as we see in MLB with one fielder alone on one side of the infield. If an overshift happened, there would likely be a counter to this with bunting or even a different method of approach to a heavy pull hitter. 


NPB a foreign player cap, MLB does not

For NPB, players that are foreign can only exceed up to four on the 28-man roster. That could be up to three pitchers and a position player or vice versa, but not four of each unit. Teams can have as many players under contract as they want, but only four at the ichi-gun at a time. If some team has several imports they want to use, they could end up rotating a few every 10 days by taking them off and putting someone else on.  

You don't need to be born in Japan to become a roster foreigner. Several players were born elsewhere (Daikan Yoh, Nien Ting Wu), but went to high school/university in Japan. Essentially, if you are drafted by an NPB team, you do not count against the foreigner cap. 

A fun bonus rule for the longtime imports is if they reach nine years of service time, they will no longer count against the foreign roster cap and are deemed "Japanese player" status. Alex Ramirez, Alex Cabrera and Tuffy Rhodes have reached this distinction in the past. 


Spring training is often headlined by heavy bullpen session workouts by the pitchers

While we already talked about how NPB players will work out to death before and after the games as well as the season, spring training is where things become reported. It's common for a veteran pitcher to throw hundreds of pitches in one session and it's not rare to see as many as 200 or more. From intrasquad games to irregular locations (like the Fighters being in Arizona), the bullpen sessions get all the news with how many a pitcher might throw. 


Pitch count means less for a starting pitcher during a game

An NPB manager won't take a starter out because threw 100 pitches. It's not uncommon to see guys go 120 if they feel the vibe of the game is good. This is due to starting pitchers going only once a week in a 6-man rotation as opposed to every 4-5 days.


Winning the pennant in Japan is being the best regular season team in each league (like the #1 seed). 

Like the old days before a playoff existed, you had to come in first to go to the World Series. Japan still uses that title if you come in first place. However, there is still a playoff called the Climax Series where the second and third place teams duke it out in a best two of out of three series. The winner of that then faces the pennant winner in a best four of seven with a one-game disadvantage and all games on the road, where it favors the #1 seed. 

In the past, it used to be a best three out of five when the top seed would not have a one-game advantage. With lower seeded teams advancing in the early stages of the Climax Series, NPB changed it to favor the pennant winner and rewarding them for a grueling regular season, where you see the same five other teams in your league 25 times each. 

So a second or third place team can become Central or Pacific League champions go to the Japan Series and be champions without a pennant. 


Winning the pennant earns a parade and a trip, even without a Japan Series championship

That is not a typo, a parade is given to the city of the teams who win the pennant and those teams will go somewhere in December as part of a victory trip. Hawaii is a common destination, but they've gone elsewhere too. There could be as many as three professional baseball-related parades after the NPB season if a non-pennant winner takes the Japan Series. 


Japan has a "hero interview", which is public for the stadium audience to hear

When the game is over and there is a winner, a hero interview takes place almost immediately after the game on a microphone for those at home and in the stadium to listen. Obviously it's the player of the game speaking, but you'll hear it on an open mic. If the home team wins, multiple players are interviewed depending on the game. If the away team wins, there will only be one player from the winning team interviewed, but it is still public on an open mic. 

In the States, interviews are done by the local broadcast for those watching on TV or listening on radio, but the stadium audience will usually not hear it unless it's a playoff or major game. 


NPB's trade deadline and any trades are about as active as the NFL's is, almost non-existent 

July 31 is usually a big deal for MLB as teams will make their moves to buy or sell. This is also a deadline in NPB for trades, but the activity isn't huge. Teams do not make blockbuster deals in today's game unless something special or irregular happens (i.e. disgruntled player). They feel they shouldn't be giving up talent to get talent and would rather keep their most talented players until free agency.

When it comes to trades in Japan, they will usually go with a lateral move by sending an expendable player for another team's expendable player as a sign of cheap depth. Majority of these trades are calculated as almost even on paper, making it even tougher to analyze. 

Think about the time Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop were sent to the Chicago Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger going to the Baltimore Orioles. On paper, that was a lateral trade with marginal players, but it ended up being a best case scenario for Chicago. In NPB, it's likely we won't see a trade end up being that lopsided, but can have the same idea of not winning nor losing a deal coming into it. 

The last blockbuster deal was when OF Yoshio Itoi was traded in his prime to the Orix Buffaloes as the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters felt all sorts of panic and headache at the time not knowing if they should pay him or not. (Crazy enough, Shohei Ohtani was just drafted by the team and they convinced him to sign months prior to this trade). 

This deadline also serves a purpose for any late season transactions such as signing another import or promoting any ikusei to be eligible for the postseason. A few foreign signings could happen in July depending on team needs/desires. 


Free agency is also minimal in NPB

In MLB, we see players come and go once they reach the seven years of service time. In Japan, NPB teams will often hang on to their best players, making it easier for them to spend their entire career with one team. While some will test the market and want a higher payday, NPB teams would rather invest in their best guys as they're already being marketed. If anything, fans will at least get to know a decent player for 7-8 years before free agency and he won't be on a trade block anytime soon. 


Free agent compensation comes in the form of cash and a player in NPB, MLB compensation comes in the form of a draft pick

When a player reaches seven years of service time, he can exercise his domestic FA option and put himself on the market in Japan. He earns an international FA option after nine years, something Yoshihisa Hirano, Tadahito Iguchi, Munenori Kawasaki and Hideki Matsui had to do. 

If a player who used his option had a top-10 salary on the team in the last year (not counting foreign player salaries in that ranking), then he will be a Type B free agent. A Type A free agent would have a top-3 salary. Anyone ranked outside the top ten in salary will be a Type C free agent with no compensation awarded. There are also players who are cut well-before the seven years that have no compensation. 

Assuming the player signs with another team, the team that loses him can choose a cash + player or more cash option. The team signing the player must create a list of 28 protected players (foreigners not included or needed), where those who are unprotected can be exposed and claimed.

The list for Type A and B free agents are as follows: 

Type B: 60% of the player's salary from the previous year OR 40% of the player's salary from the previous year and an unprotected player.  

Type A: 80% of the player's salary from the previous year OR 50% of the player's salary from the previous year and an unprotected player.  

A team cannot sign more than two Type A and/or B free agents in one offeseason, but there is no cap on Type C free agents.  

While slightly outdated, more can be read here. A typical offseason will have about 7-8 players using their FA option while many will choose to stay with their current team. 


Tie games will exist in the postseason, not just regular season

A game is called officially after 12 innings no matter the score in Japan. This makes it nearly impossible to see a position player on the mound and more incentive for a manager to player their better relievers earlier in the game than later if it's still tied.  

While a tie can happen in the early stages, it favors the team with the higher seed. In the Japan Series, another game could be added on if no team has four wins after seven games. If that happens Game 8 and beyond will have no limits, meaning there could be as many as 14 games if the first seven are all ties. 


NPB clings to distinct stats, MLB may look at the bigger picture

Ever hit .300 with 30 HRs and 30 stolen bases? It's not just the 30-30 club, but more known as the "Triple-3" as they say in Japan. If a guy breaks a league record, he could win the MVP award even if his team was awful. Japanese voters want something flashy, as it plays a role in winning MVP of the month awards and more. This includes wins, a very low ERA, win PCT, a high batting average, high RBIs etc. 

In 2013, Wladimir Balentien broke the single-season home run record with 60, where the previous number was at 55. He won the MVP award in a landslide. For 2017, Dennis Sarfate set a new record in saves with 54, where the previous high was 48. He ended up winning an MVP Award as well as the Shoriki Award, something a foreign player never won up to that point. 


Milestones are recognized during the game, which includes a brief stoppage for a photo opportunity

If a player gets a nice even number amount of hits in his career (say 1,000) or 1,500 doubles, 300 home runs, there will likely be recognition when it happens no matter who is hosting the game. As the video shows above, Hideto Asamura hit his 1,000th career hit which drew a short stoppage. 

Other things might be recognized briefly with a flower bouquet and no poster, such as playing their 1,000th career game. This can be seen away or at home. In the States, only the home team will get public recognition for something unless it's major. You'd have to hear radio or a broadcast to be aware of this if you're in the stadium. 


Japan makes marketing merchandise for accomplishments, milestones and big moments. MLB will mostly market holidays

It's common in NPB to make money grabbing merchandise when something big happens. Sometimes it's a walkoff hit or a record being broken. Three home runs in a game? You'll get merchandise! 

When Shohei Ohtani would hit 100 mph (160 km/h) on the gun, the scoreboard would glow a special color to recognize it. There were shirts to commemorate him throwing the fastest pitch in NPB at 165 kph. 

However, even some simple moments like a player's first hit or win is also commemorated with a T-shirt or baseball. Even a commemorative shirt can exist for a retiring player who isn't famous. The shirt above commemorated Takumi Kuriyama's walkoff HR, which was the first of the season for the Saitama Seibu Lions in 2017. Video of that can be seen here: 

In MLB, some events such as a no-hitter or perfect game might be commemorated, but much of their merchandise will come from holidays or big events like the All-Star game. Today, we're seeing apparel for holidays like St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and more. NPB has their share of this, but nothing compared to the accomplishments. 

One funny moment was when Wladimir Balentien forced a game delay because of a bird dropping a fish on the field, causing a bad odor. Even some of the most simple quirks could be marketed into a T-shirt. 


Fanfest happens after the NPB season, MLB teams have theirs before the season and spring training

Fanfest is known as "Thanks Festa" in Japan where the players do their share of fan service in November, as opposed to January or February in North America. Besides a simple Q&A, players will partake in games and do things that would be viewed as crazy in the States. 


If you are a college student, you must graduate in order to make yourself eligible for the NPB Draft

It's common in MLB for teams to draft a player before he graduates assuming he has stock. That player can then decide if he wants to stay in school or sign with the team. Japan requires graduation for University players. 

High school graduates are also eligible for the draft. The draft itself happens in October and while many will go undrafted, the timing works in Japan's school system as students at both levels will graduate in March, giving any students the option to pursue a different baseball job, go to college (if out of HS) or more. 


Besides independent leagues, Japan also has industrial leagues, where players can be drafted out of either

Industrial Leagues are also known as "corporate ball" in Japan, where the players will be part of a company and also play for their baseball team. There are several companies in Japan that have a baseball team, from cars (Honda, Toyota etc.) to electronics (Panasonic, Yamaha) to even train companies. These guys are working individuals known as Shakaijin as they work a day job (which could be white or blue collar), then play baseball at night. 

Unlike filing paperwork for a high school or college senior to make themselves draft eligible, shakaijin only need to wait three years removed from high school or two years removed from college to be eligible without any declaration needed. Some guys like Kazuhisa Makita can be drafted as late as 26 years old. Best yet, making a baseball career in corporate ball isn't bad because of the pay and even pension for some as they have a job, instead of rotting under almost no pay in the minor leagues. 

Junichi Tazawa took this path and played for three years with a team out of high school. Even though he was draft eligible, teams backed off when he announced his intention to leave for MLB. 

Players can also be drafted out of an independent league, though they aren't common in a draft class. They can shortcut their way to NPB with only one year needed removed from high school. 


Rookie hazing? More like rookie training

When rookies are drafted in the fall, which is right before the Japan Series, they will prepare themselves for rookie camp. The rookie camp takes place in January and while it's not mandatory, all draft picks will show up to make a good impression on the team staff. They move into a dormitory/facility whether it's an 18-year-old or a 25-year-old shakaijin and begin work right away. 

Rookies are sometimes recognized at the Thanks Festa with a special Q&A or display of actions, but no reports of hazing. In MLB, any rookies that play in their first season up in the big leagues will get a hazing, where they have to dress up as something silly for the final road trip, often wearing this in public. 


Teams conduct a mandatory fall camp when the regular season is over

For all teams, they participate in the Phoenix League when the postseason is going on as a way for players to get work. A playoff team will likely have reserves participate while a team that failed to get in the postseason will have several players go down to Miyazaki prefecture. It's not a punishment, but just another way for players to get work. 

Even after the season is over, many players under contract will stay at the team facility to practice and train on their own time. There is no relaxing in the offseason for some.


Amateur level baseball has more significance and history than professional baseball in Japan

Thanks to some history and the game being brought over in the late 1800s, Japan's organized games started in the early 20th Century and the University level has more history with some rivalries developing as early as 1903. 

Summer Koshien is the most well-known national high school tournament across the country being around since 1915. This is a tournament where pitchers become legends given its significance. Masahiro Tanaka and Daisuke Matsuzaka are more famous for their high school careers than what they did at the pro level. 

Scouts from North America will also be at this tournament evaluating talent. It's a place where some can up their stock and become a first round draft pick later. 

The professional league of NPB we know today has been around since 1950, though a few teams started their existence after the 1934 USA tour of Japan, where Babe Ruth was the centerpiece of it all. 

The NCAA College World Series puts Omaha on the map and diehard baseball fans appreciate the game, but the coverage is not as significant as Japan for their amateur level baseball. 


There you have it, after thinking about it and coming up with even more differences from observation and watching without repeating our original article, this is what I could come up with. Did I miss even more? Let me know in the comments below. 


Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall

Thursday, March 1, 2018

NPB Preview 2018: Central League

The 2018 NPB Season will kickoff soon as we're currently in the state of exhibition baseball (known as Open-sen). To help with anyone who has a baseball itch and is craving the sport, here are some thoughts on the Central League.

We will break down each team with good, bad, uncertainty and more. However, we will not make a prediction of which place they come in. Predictions will be on the podcast as this piece will have more of a projection or idea where each team is expected to finish.


Tokyo Yakult Swallows:  

The Swallows are coming off a nightmare season of historical lows. At on point, they lost 14 out of 15 games, where the one non-loss was a tie. Numbers were putrid and forgettable in an awful season. This team wasn't even given a fair chance, as the injury bug hit everywhere from positions players, bullpen and starting pitchers. They were decimated everywhere.

Strengths: Starting pitching

Yasuhiro "Ryan" Ogawa regained form after a bad 2016, but was used as a closer in one of the worst games of the year. David Buchanan is a nice piece as he carried the team and will stay for this year. First round pick Juri Hara had a promising season as well and on paper, there are pieces in the rotation for the long run with Naruki Terashima being the big draft pick from 2016.

Question marks: Offense, middle relief, health

The offense was absolutely unwatchable where injuries hurt the unit, but Tetsuto Yamada was healthy all season and had his worst career year. Wladimir "Coco" Balentien got over the normal hump of hitting more than 31 HRs, but even he was out for some time. Tomotaka Sakaguchi was the lone consistent player on offense for the team.

Can things get better? There's nowhere to go but up. There was a lack of power from the team outside of Yamada and Balentien as no one came closer to 10 home runs in what is a bandbox ballpark. Everything went downhill for the bullpen when closer Ryo Akiyoshi went down with an injury and finishing a game was uncertain. Health was the biggest weakness overall last year as the team was low on depth by season's end.

Notable additions and Foreign signings: OF Norichika Aoki, P Jordan Norberto "Armengot", P David Huff, P Matt Carasiti, OF Shotaro Tashiro, Manager Junji Ogawa, C Munetaka Murakami

Key losses: None

Armengot has experience in NPB with the Dragons while J. Ogawa is back after being the predecessor to Mitsuru Manaka. Ogawa worked in the front office in the last three years as this tenure will be more of a caretaker role. By signing Tashiro, the Swallows are desperate for any healthy bodies after last season.

If the Swallows hit on these signings, at least their pitching could keep them competitive when the rotation already has some pieces. If anything, seeing the past (Aoki) and present (Yamada) together on the same team gives everyone a nice sentimental feeling and the former can improve the offense, but does can he be the leader on what was a bad team?

Expectations: This team is going through a rebuild by hiring Ogawa. On paper, they have Head coach Shinya Miyamoto lined up for the long term, but Ogawa is there to take the bullet as this team will go through plenty of losses.

In 2015, everything went right. The 2016 season had unwatchable pitching with an adequate offense. Last year, it was backward where the starters did their jobs, but injuries decimated the offense.

If Yamada rebounds and the team stays healthy, maybe there's a chance for A-class, but the Swallows need to hit on all their import signings. Too much has to go their way for them to be a playoff team.


Chunichi Dragons 

The Dragons went through their first year of an open rebuild in 2017 by avoiding the cellar. They only made a slight improvement in wins from 2016, which isn't saying much.

Strengths: OF Yohei Oshima, back end of the bullpen

Unfortunately for the Dragons, there's no individual unit that stands out, rather it's just individuals themselves. Katsuki Matayoshi and Shinji Tajima are the backbone of the bullpen while Oshima is a solid hitter.

Question marks: Uncertainty

The Dragons are throwing in players left and right, specifically in the rotation where as many as eight or nine guys can go if they want. There's interesting pieces with the young Shinnosuke Ogasawara and Yuya Yanagi being the recent first round draft picks.

This team has failed to draft or develop their recent draft picks from a previous regime and held on to their veterans too long. The good news is that the team is getting younger, but can these guys develop?

Additions and Foreign Signings: P Onelki Garcia, OF Steven Moya, OF Zoilo Almonte, P Dillon Gee, C Shota Ono, P Hiroshi Suzuki, P Daisuke Matsuzaka,

Key losses: OF Alex Guerrero, P Jordan Norberto

As a legend for his name and history, Matsuzaka has drawn all the headlines for a player who has only played one ichi-gun game from 2015-2017. On the field, expectations have to be minimal. Ono will likely be the starting catcher as he was their big free agent signing. Chunichi's OF imports could help an offense that needs a band aid.

Expectations: Shigekazu Mori is in his second full year of being the manager after taking over in the middle of 2016. Like J. Ogawa for the Swallows, he should be viewed as a caretaker with the Dragons having someone else lined up for the future.

Is this a lame duck year for Mori if they feel farm manager Michihiro "Guts" Ogasawara is ready to go? On paper, the Dragons are still rebuilding and don't have what it takes for A-class, but unlike the Swallows, they have a one year head start. The Dragons are already at a franchise high for longest length in B-class in history. That alone can't be good, but most spectators will say Chunichi is another year away from being ready for postseason contention.


Yomiuri Giants

Thanks to a franchise-record 13 game losing streak in 2017, the Yomiuri Giants experienced B-class for the first time since 2006. They've only experienced back-to-back B-class seasons once in franchise history, going from 2005-2006. This would be historic if they repeated this feat again.

Strengths: Veterans, rotation, bullpen

Tomoyuki Sugano and Kazuto Taguchi can carry the load in the rotation without trouble. On offense, Daikan Yoh hopes to be healthy for the full year after missing the first two months. Casey McGehee proved to be a good pickup and Hayato Sakamoto is consistent at SS. Scott Mathieson and Arquimedes Caminero are also a solid back end duo for the 8th and 9th innings.

Question marks: Front office, lack of youth?

There's questions about how the Yomiuri office ran itself last year after making one pivotal move. They took Caminero off to make room for Luis Cruz, meaning the Giants forced Mathieson at closer for 10 days. It was one of many negative domino effects which led to the team's 13 game losing streak. Most recently, they unprotected Hayato Takagi, who was selected by the Saitama Seibu Lions as free agency compensation for the signing of Ryoma Nogami.

Yoshitaka Katori took over their front office in the middle of the season last year. He's the first former player to be running the Giants, as in the past it has always been corporate businessman/journalists. The Giants have plenty of farm players, but they're often blocked by many veterans in front. Most recently, they drafted multiple catchers in the 2017 NPB Draft. Is that a vote of no confidence in Seiji Kobayashi long term?

Key Additions/Import signings: P Ryoma Nogami, OF Alex Guerrero, P Taylor Jungmann

Key losses: P Hayato Takagi, 3B Shunichi Murata, P Miles Mikolas

The Giants threw money at a free agent again with Nogami and Guerrero joining the fold. Mikolas cashed in on his NPB experience signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, while the Giants chose to let Takagi go when signing Nogami. On paper, Guerrero should help their offense right away and could even hit 40+ HRs after hitting 35 in a pitcher's park.

Expectations: The Giants are the "National Team" of Japan, meaning expectations are always sky high. This team is capable of getting back into A-class, but they'll need to earn it. The front end of each unit is solid, there just can't be incompetence on the back end and the offense must take a big step forward. Guerrero is supposed to do that, something which lacked in the first two months prior to interleague play.

Nationally, people expect them to win the pennant every year, but this Giants team is only an A-class contender in my book with no higher finish than second place. The pitching will need others to step it up and maybe the depth can improve to cover the loss of Mikolas, but to get to a pennant? Seems unrealistic.


Yokohama DeNA Baystars

The Baystars appeared in their first Japan Series since 1998 and were very close to forcing a Game 7 as they barely came up short. However, the identity of an Alex "Rami-chan" Ramirez team has been mediocrity, followed by getting hot in the postseason.

Strengths: Starting pitching

Track record is looking really good for Baystars first round picks since 2014. Closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, Shota Imanaga and Haruhiro Hamaguchi have all helped their team with the latter two in the rotation being solid building blocks. With Shoichi Ino and Kenta Ishida already there as well as Joe Wieland in the fold, the trajectory for the latest first round pick Katsuki Azuma looks good.

Question marks: Bullpen, inconsistent offense

Rami-chan tries to take advantage of any upperhand he can find. Whether it's preparing a player differently or going with a lineup that works against the opposing pitcher, he'll look into all the numbers and details.

Offensively, the Baystars are very home run dependent where it beomces important for someone like Jose Lopez or Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to hit the long ball. Toshiro Miyazaki is also coming off a Central League  batting championship year. Was that a little fluky with some overachieving? Maybe.

The middle relief to get to Yamasaki was the largest problem for the Baystars and they're hoping some imports can band aid this unit. Spencer Patton was adequate, but Tomoya Mikami and Kenjiro Tanaka were not the greatest.

Key additions and import signings: IF "Yamato" Maeda, P Edison Barrios, IF Neftali Soto

Key losses: None

Yamato was their big pickup domestically, costing P Yuya Onaka as compensation going to the Hanshin Tigers. Crazy enough, Yamato might not be playing much as he must earn his starting time. Barrios is a Softbank Hawks castoff who spent last year in the Independent BC Challenge League. If he can regain form from 2015, it would be huge.

Expectations: After going to the postseason twice, the Baystars should have championship expectations within and from the media. The only problem is, can they put in a solid regular season together? Having come off a trip to the Japan Series, the talent is there and this should be the first time in a long time that people are taking this team seriously for a pennant.


Hanshin Tigers

The Hanshin returned to A-class after a one year hiatus where Tomoaki Kanemoto experienced postseason baseball in his second season as manager. They're looking to build off this and take the next step.

Strengths: Front end rotation and bullpen

After having a shaky bullpen in 2016, Kanemoto had plenty of options as a middle relief bridge to closer Rafael Dolis. Marcos Mateo, Akifumi Takahashi, Suguru Iwazaki, Tsuyoshi Ishizaki and Kentaro Kuwahara all spent time as part of a solid unit. Of course 2018 is a new year, but they had an amazing 2017.

Randy Messenger continues to be the ace as he is close to reaching a 9th year of service time, meaning he counts as a Japanese player for roster reasons without the foreign import rule. Takumi Akiyama was a good complementing piece while the ageless Atsushi Nomi carried the load in innings. This rotation could be even better if Shintaro Fujinami can work on his control, but the Tigers are capable of "bullpenning" their way through games.

Question marks: Offensive inconsistency, Bunting habits

Takashi Toritani had a rebound season, Shun Takayama regressed, Kosuke Fukudome isn't getting any younger, Yoshio Itoi was injured and Yusuke Oyama is still raw and very young. Kanemoto played guys who didn't receive as much ichi-gun time under his predecessor Yutaka Wada and it helped for the long run. Masahiro Nakatani, Hiroki Uemoto and Ryutaro Umeno all logged in plenty of starts as a result.

Others who contributed include "Shunsuke" Fujikawa and Kento Itohara. The Tigers are hoping Fumihito Haraguchi and Fumiya Hojo could also do something long term considering both took a step backwards in 2017. Kanemoto also forced Oyama to continue playing as he's "his guy" being the first round pick of 2016. Will he keep bunting and reduce the possible runs?

Key additions and import signings: IF Willin Rosario, P Yen-Ching Lu, P Diego Moreno

Key loss: IF "Yamato" Maeda

Given his success in Korea, Rosario is the import with arguably the highest expectations in NPB. He's supposed to make an instant impact with power and more, but will Kanemoto give him a fair leash?

In response to the loss of Yamato, Toritani is moving to 2B. Should be interesting seeing a legend move around the infield after being a shortstop for long time.

Expectations: Like the Giants, supporters in Kansai always have high expectations for their team. Objectively speaking, they have a legit case that they should be contending for a pennant, something they haven't won since 2005. Rosario needs to bring the pop, as only Nakatani reached the 20 HR plateau in 2017 while a few were not far off.

With the bullpen being elite and the rotation /offense capable of getting better, they should be right in the hunt.


Hiroshima Carp

The Carp won the Central League Pennant for the second consecutive year. Some injuries and shortcomings in the Climax Series gave them an earlier exit than they hoped.

Strengths: Offense

From Yoshihiro Maru, Seiya Suzuki, Toshihiro Abe, Kosuke Tanaka, Brad Eldred and an aging Takahiro Arai. the Carp have an embarrassment of riches on offense. They have speed, can hit the gaps and a balance of power. Didn't even need to mention how solid Ryosuke Kikuchi is with his bat, while he's more known for his defense.

 Question marks: Rotation, Bullpen

The Carp bullpen is where inconsistency deceives the numbers. Takeru Imamura looks like a good piece, but can he close out games consistently? The Carp have the players from Ryuji Ichioka, Ren Nakata, former closer Shota Nakazaki and Jay Jackson. They're all inconsistent as with most relievers on a given night. Can they get an identity in crunch time and find a better rhythm? Hiroshima hasn't been tested often in those close games because of their offense.

The rotation overachieved last year with kids like Akitake Okada and Kazuki Yabuta being thrown in and doing well. They could regress after last season's amazing regular season. Kris Johnson hopes to rebound after being injured most of 2017 and having a down year.

Key additions and foreign signings: P Leonel Campos

Key losses: None

The Carp are hoping to develop from within their academy where Xavier Batista made an impact in his short time. Alejandro Mejia was also a late signing from last year.

Expectations: For a team that has won the pennant twice, there's no reason they can do it again for a three-peat. Offense is there and the pitching has a foundation. If the pitching can maintain the success it had from 2017, they'll be dominant for years to come and could run away with the pennant again. Of course their core players need to be healthy if they want to make the Japan Series again like 2016 as Seiya Suzuki was missed.



Two teams are rebuilding, four teams are in the hunt for A-class with three of them having an argument for the pennant. This should be a very open competition and while head to head games matter most, no one can overlook the bottom feeders as that can also make a difference. The Dragons are typically good at defeating one opponent as they can annoy someone down the line.

Fasten your seatbelts everyone. This race for the pennant shall be a bumpy ride.

Pacific League 2018 Preview


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